Can Cecil Rhambo Establish Himself as the Reform Candidate to Beat in the Sheriff’s Race?

The LAX police chief, who’s running to oust controversial incumbent Alex Villanueva in 2022, adds a local civil rights icon to his list of endorsements

In the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s race, there’s one big question coming into view: Who is going to emerge as the anti-Trump, er, anti-Villanueva candidate?

Cecil Rhambo is hoping it’s him, and with a major new endorsement from a well-known civil rights attorney and his involvement with the passage of police accountability measures, he’s looking to claim the mantle of the reform candidate against a sheriff who once did the same before dramatically changing tack.

Longtime civil rights giant Connie Rice is endorsing Rhambo, a former assistant sheriff and the chief of police at LAX, calling him “the only candidate with enough guts, inside know-how and vision to fix a broken Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”

Rice has fought and sued for meaningful police reforms in Los Angeles for decades and is a big-name supporter for a candidate who is calling out Sheriff Alex Villanueva daily and trying to separate himself from a pack that seems to keep adding new candidates.

As Villanueva continues to deny the existence of deputy gangs, to battle the Board of Supervisors, and to refuse to require his deputies to be vaccinated despite a county mandate, Rhambo and the people backing him see an opening.

“In a Rhambo Department, there will be no more secret police, rehired stalkers, or vendetta squads—and no more impostors cloaked in reform clothing,” Rice says in a statement provided exclusively to Los Angeles. “Respect for oversight, cooperation with elected leaders, a fair deal for good deputies, compassion for immigrants, and aggressive reform will mark his agenda.”

Rice’s endorsement comes just days after Governor Gavin Newsom signed a package of police reform laws spearheaded by the Legislative Black Caucus and its chairman, State Senator Steven Bradford, another longtime reform advocate.

At the signing ceremony, Bradford, who has already endorsed Rhambo, shouted out the LAX chief by name, thanking him for his input on the law, which creates a way to investigate and revoke or suspend a cop’s certification for serious misconduct. Believe it or not, until this became law, California was one of only four states without a law like this on the books.

Of particular importance to L.A. given recent reporting on so-called deputy “cliques,” one of the new laws actually defines what law enforcement gangs are, prohibits them, makes participation in criminal acts while a member of a gang grounds for termination, and stops officers fired for certain offenses from getting hired by other law enforcement agencies.

Villanueva has denied that his deputies are involved in gangs, earning a sharp rebuke from reform advocates and the field of candidates running to replace him.

Bradford tells Los Angeles that he endorsed Rhambo because “he represents what is badly needed in law enforcement—someone from the community who has seen it from both sides.”

“I do believe that he’s the reform sheriff that L.A. County and law enforcement needs,” Bradford says.

In an interview with Los Angeles, Rhambo, who would be the county’s first Black sheriff, talked about how his roots and experience in and out of L.A. law enforcement shaped the kind of candidate he is, beginning with his childhood in Compton through 1992, when he was a young sergeant and the world watched in horror as LAPD officers brutally beat Rodney King.

“I’ve been Black my whole life,” Rhambo says, describing his conversations with Black people in his old neighborhood. “They don’t say, ‘We don’t want more police.’ They say, ‘We just want police who won’t screw us over and keep abusing us.’”

To that point, Rhambo and Bradford both emphasize that the new reform laws are not anti-police; Rhambo says he’s spent way too much time in uniform to be seen as “some super-duper ultra-lefty guy.”

“Cops tend to be more centrist,” Rhambo says. “And they need to understand I’m trying to make it safe for everybody.”

“There’s a need for police reform,” he adds. “And hopefully they’ll understand that I… want nothing more than overall public safety for economic viability and really just for safer communities, particularly in the inner city.”

Still, police reform isn’t as popular in some spheres as it was a year ago, when George Floyd’s murder was a recent memory and the marches had just ended. Just weeks ago, Congressional efforts to pass police reform died a quiet death amid a perceived rise in crime that Republicans are hoping to weaponize against Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.

Rhambo says he is aware of the shift in the political environment and that some voters might be “buying into this rising crime thing,” but says the recent gubernatorial recall results give him reason to believe that Angeleno voters know how to separate fact from political spin.

“I think L.A. County intuitively understands they’re trying to fearmonger out there,” he says. “Look at what happened with the governor’s recall. It just got resoundingly stomped out.”

Rhambo isn’t the only candidate running on reforming the sheriff’s department—Villanueva ran on reform in 2018 before getting elected—and six other candidates, including Eli Vera, a chief with the LASD who was demoted by Villanueva after he announced he was running for his boss’s job.

Given Villanueva’s heel turn, it’s fair to wonder if any candidate promising reform can actually pull off the daunting task of trying to overhaul a massive department with a lot of problems.

“It’s not gonna be an easy task by no stretch of the imagination,” Bradford says. “But I think the fact that he’s been from the bottom to the top, he has the best understanding of where change can happen and what to do to facilitate it.”

For his part, Rhambo says it will “take time,” laying out a list of things that need to happen to change the culture at LASD, including proper recruitment and training.

“Culture change is a multifaceted long game, and it begins from the top,” Rhambo says. “It’s going to be tough for me, and I’ve been around for a long time. I can’t imagine someone with less experience trying to maneuver through the politics.”

Rice, who has repeatedly sued law enforcement offices, says she believes that Rhambo is the candidate to finally bring real reform to the department. “Cecil Rhambo has what it takes,” she says in her statement to Los Angeles. “He is the only candidate for sheriff with the integrity, courage, and skill required to dig out the rot and lawlessness running amok in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”

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